For years, immigration detention centres were a political asset. They were something for ministers to boast about when they wanted to look tough on immigration. Now, they’re becoming a liability. Legal rulings are freeing batches of detainees in their hundreds. TV exposés have revealed a culture of hatred and violence among staff. Inquiries have been set up. Even Tory backbenchers are getting uncomfortable.
Take Yarl’s Wood, a detention centre in Bedfordshire which holds mostly women. When it was opened 14 years ago, journalists were invited in to have a look around. But things have changed. The only way for Channel 4 to get cameras into the centre was to smuggle them in in secret. When they did, earlier this year, they found guards describing inmates as “animals” and “bitches” and urging each other to beat them with sticks.
Now even MPs struggle to get in. Catherine West, one of Labour’s 2015 intake, asked the Home Office to authorise an official visit shortly after she entered parliament. She waited months for a reply. Then she received an email from immigration minister James Brokenshire’s office saying: “Requests are carefully considered and planned to preserve the privacy and dignity of the individuals that are detained from a disproportionate number of visits. I’m afraid that we are not able to agree to a visit out of general interest in the centre.”
There is a cruel irony in the reference to women’s privacy and dignity. It’s exactly what anti-detention campaigners have been raising with the Home Office for years. A recent report by Women for Refugee Women found male staff routinely entering the rooms of female detainees without knocking. They saw them naked. They saw them showering. They saw them on the toilet.
“Protecting women’s privacy is a phrase we’ve used against the Home Office for years,” says Natasha Walter, Women for Refugee Women’s founder. “Now they’re using it to stop people visiting. It’s just unbelievable.”
West is far from the first person to be denied access to Yarl’s Wood. Last year, Rashida Manjoo, UN rapporteur on violence against women, was blocked from visiting. The Home Office originally put together the itinerary for the visit but for some reason it left Yarl’s Wood out while including several men’s detention centres. Campaigners spotted what was happening and tried to arrange a visit, but Serco, which runs the centre, blocked it.
The blinds are being pulled down over the detention estate. There is a sense of alarm in the Home Office as the campaign against detention becomes increasingly mainstream.
You can see why. A recent parliamentary inquiry into detention gave the movement some serious establishment credentials. The inquiry was the brainchild of outgoing Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather. Her team worked cleverly to give it all the trappings of a formal select committee inquiry, even though it was little more than an all-party group side project. MPs and peers from all three main parties were put on the panel, which included a former cabinet minister, a former chief inspector of prisons and a former law lord. They took evidence from detainees over video link.
The inquiry’s conclusion – that detention should be limited to 28 days – was taken up by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The Tories wouldn’t follow suit, but many of the party’s backbenchers, like Nicola Blackwood, David Burrowes and Richard Fuller, are becoming increasingly vocal about their discomfort with the system.
“The Home Office is very jittery about political pressure from their own backbenchers,” Detention Action director Jerome Phelps says. “In the past they were happy to talk about detention as a way of showing how tough they are. Now there are political anxieties.”
The political anxieties are set to increase with the forthcoming release of two new reports. One, led by barrister Kate Lampard, will report specifically on Yarl’s Wood. The other will consider the impact of indefinite detention on the mental health of detainees. Its findings are unlikely to be positive. Stephen Shaw, the former prisons and probation ombudsman charged with authoring it, has been noticeably bullish about the scope of the inquiry.
Meanwhile, the Home Office has been forced to release hundreds of detainees incarcerated under “detention fast-track” after the high court ruled it to be “systemically unfair and unjust”. The entire system for fast-tracking asylum seeker claims has now been brought offline while ministers try to figure out how to respond.
But away from parliament and the courts, the real story of detention centre failure is told in the numbers. After all, the centres are only supposed to exist as a last resort to facilitate deportation. But the percentage of detainees being deported upon release has fallen from a peak of 64 per cent in the year ending March 2011, to 51 per cent in March 2015. In the first three months of this year, they fell further to just above 50 per cent, with everyone else being released into the community. Once they fall below that level, the detention system will be a failure on its own terms.
And as it fails, political support is falling away. Haslar detention centre was recently closed and a planned expansion of Campsfield was cancelled. Whatever else is happening, the Home Office has seemingly given up on trying to enlarge the detention estate.
The political backlash finally reaches the Commons this week, with a debate responding to the parliamentary inquiry set for Thursday. An issue which has been under the radar for years is now increasingly an embarrassment for the government.
Meanwhile, West is continuing with her efforts to get inside Yarl’s Wood. A petition demanding she be allowed in has clocked up over 1,800 signatures and she’ll try to raise it during PMQs this Wednesday.
“Elected members should be curious about things,” she says. “We should be visiting schools and care homes and prisons. I’ll persist. I’ll keep on going.”
Her confidence is well placed. The Home Office has never so looked so nervous about detention centres.